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A Spirit of Applause, November 26, 2017 at Grace Baptist Church, Richmond VA

A Spirit of Applause
Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness; come into GOD’s presence with singing.

Know that the LORD is God. It is God who has made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.

For the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.


I was in one of those big box stores this past week. I saw a young child sitting in a shopping cart. She was maybe three years old. Her father was pushing her down the aisle that contained all the stores Christmas decorations. There were decorated Christmas trees, a life sized bell ringing Santa, and an inflatable Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It was so large that it could be perched on your rooftop.

As the father and his child made their way down the aisle, they would stop at each piece of décor. The father would whisper a few words to his daughter. I am not sure what he was saying, but it made her happy. They would both smile and shout “Merry Christmas,” and then the young girl clap her hands in delight.

Young children so easily express that gift of applause.

Music plays and a child will clap her hands to the beat of the music with exuberant happiness.

She will see a playmate at the daycare and will applaud in joyful anticipation of the games they will play.

Or maybe the applause will be in response to the taste of chocolate ice cream; or a big bundle of cotton candy; or a visit to see grandma. Young children so appreciate life that they will applaud almost anything.

Unfortunately, as they grow older, people lose that spirit of applause. They lose an appreciation for the amazing blessing of life.

This morning I’d like for us to recapture this spirit of applause. I think it’s a good Sunday to do that. Just days ago we gathered with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. Next Sunday, we will begin our Advent journey toward Bethlehem. Today we are gathered on the last Sunday of the church year which we call “Reign of Christ Sunday.” This is a great occasion to pause and reflect upon the presence and blessings of God’s grace in our lives.

Are you familiar with the term “pack rat”?

A “pack rat” is a person who loves to pack away every piece of belonging that crosses their fingertips. Very little is thrown away. Instead, almost everything is packed away in boxes, basements, and attics.

Pack rats try to rationalize their behavior. To rationalize means that you are telling “rational lies” to justify some sort of behavior.

“That item has sentimental value!”

“This item reminds me of an important incident in my life. To get rid of that would be a denial of my very heart and soul.”

“I can’t get rid of that! I might need it again one day!”

“Pack rats” – the world is full of them. In fact, I have a confession to make. I am one of them. I’s a card-carrying member of the “pack rat” society.

Now my massive collection of junk has not really been a problem till recently. For a variety of reasons, we have decided to downsize. Our house is under contract. Just yesterday we signed a lease for an apartment. We will be transitioning from a home with 2200 feet into an apartment with just under 1000 feet.

My lovely wife Jeana said, “We are not taking all this junk with us, are we?” Now, I have been married long enough to recognize a rhetorical question when I hear one. What she meant was,
“We are NOT taking all this junk with us, are we!”

So, we’ve been downsizing. We’ve taken boxes of stuff to a local thrift store. Furniture is being taken to a consignment store. Truck loads of stuff have been taken to the dump.

But shssssh! Please don’t say anything, but some of the stuff has been slipped back into boxes to be taken to the apartment. (I know she is here, but I doubt she hears me. She usually sleeps through my sermons).

So, we have been packing and repacking. Along the way I have come across some personal treasures. I’ve got some things that I just can’t part with.

I found the February 1982 issue of the Baptist Campus Ministry Newsletter for the Florida Baptist Convention. In that newsletter, you will see my picture along with 18 other students from across Florida, selected to serve as Student Summer Missionaries. My assignment was to work in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

I found some old report cards from my seminary days. I found pictures of the people and churches I have served. I found a file with articles, sermons, and Sunday School literature I’ve had published. I couldn’t get rid of that stuff.

Then there are the books. I had already downsized my library substantially. But still I have 57 boxes of books.

One prize possession for me was a worship bulletin and cassette tape of the sermon preached by Dr. Don Musser, one of my professors from college, on the day of my ordination.

None of these items would mean much to any of you. They are my treasures, my memories, my experiences.

You probably have your own scrapbook, photo album, or treasure chest in your house.

When was the last time you opened your treasure chest? When was the last time you looked back to remember the ongoing blessing of God in your life?

I’ve been going through my boxes. I have been looking at my treasures. Along the way my heart has applauded with praise.

Sometimes God was center stage, doing all the acting. At other times, God was somewhere in the shadows, directing my path with whispering prompts. But God has always been there. Whether on center stage or off to the side, God has always been an integral part of my life. This is a good day to look back and recognize that even when I was not paying much attention to God, God was still paying attention to me.

So I have my mementos. I have my treasures. I have those things that remind me of God’s abiding grace.

Let me ask you: What are the treasures of grace in your life?

What are the mementos that inspire you toward a spirit of applause?

In Psalm 100, we hear what might be the words of another “pack rat.” It sounds like the words of one who has gone through the scrapbooks of life, coming to a point of applause.

“Enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving. Enter into God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God and bless God’s name, for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

In many of your Bibles, you will find a “subtitle” for each of the Psalms. Editors added these subtitles later as a way of providing context for the readers. In most Bibles, the subtitled for Psalm 100 identifies it as “A Psalm for the Thank Offering.”

What we have in Psalm 100 is a song that was sung by the people when they gathered to bring a “Thank Offering” to God. You can read about it in Leviticus 7.

On special occasions, the people would gather in the temple courtyard for a great festival. There was singing, fellowship, celebration, and praise. It was a time to remember and show appreciation for God’s blessings. In those gatherings, the words of Psalm 100 were sung by the people.

It was not outlandish or extravagant. It was a simple time to express gratitude toward God for God’s blessings and grace.

There were significant movements in the festival. We learn that the meal was made of meat and grain. This was to remind them of the time when Able (a Shepherd) and his brother Cain (a farmer) were still united as brothers.

Before Cain killed Able, one brought an offering from the flock, the other from the field. Then jealousy arose which was followed by violence as Cain killed Able. But in this thanksgiving festival, the offering of grain and meat were brought together to hearken back to a day before jealousy, anger, rage, and murder. It was to remember the time when the community was united, and to look forward to the time when it would be united again.

We share in that hope and dream today.

We look forward for a time when Cain and Able will be reconciled and once again embrace.

We look forward to a time when swords will be transformed into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

We look forward to a time when the lion shall lay down with the lamb and there will be no more talk of war.

We look forward to that time when these hopes and dreams will become reality.

Understand, this is bigger than our politics. It’s bigger than Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It’s bigger than how we voted in the last election.

We long for a day when there is no more war, no more terrorism, no more mass shootings, and no more crime.

We long for a day when people will stop drawing lines of division according to race, color, or national origin.

We long for the day when there will be no more talk about “illegal aliens” because we will all live under God’s providence as neighbors and friends.

We long for a time when there are no more divisions between the rich and the poor, the Palestinian and the Jew, between this group or that group, between “us” and “them.” That’s our dream. That’s God’s dream for us.

The “Thank Offering” was about the blessing of what had been. For the goodness that should be celebrated. But for us, it also looks forward to what will be again under the “reign of Christ.”

I have a recurring dream. It comes to me when I am feeling torn by some type of stress, conflict, or controversy. In my dream, there are people present from every period and place in my life. There are classmates and instructors from my high school, college, and seminary. There are people from every church I’ve served. Many of the people in the dream are dear friends. But some of them might best be classified as enemies. Then there are those faces I do not recognize – Anglo, African-American, Arabic, Hispanic, and Asian. In this dream, I am serving Holy Communion. In that dream, all of the torn and broken pieces of my life are coming together under the influence of God’s grace.

That is our vision as Christians. It is a dream made up of the same stuff that Jesus came to reveal as integral to “God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.”

And I like to think that was something of the hope that inspired the ancient community as it gathered. They set aside what caused division, and they look forward to the goodness of Divine unity.

Hear the Psalmist again, “The Lord is God. God made us all. We belong to God. We are God’s people!”

When they gathered to bring the “Thank Offering,” the bread they brought was unleavened. It was a reminder of the Passover. It was a reminder of the Exodus. It was a reminder that God had delivered them from captivity. It was a reminder that they were set free in a land of promise. They came with unleavened bread. It was a reminded of God’s gift of deliverance.

Has anyone here experienced God’s gift of deliverance?

In the past year, is there anyone here who can testify that God has delivered you from some great difficulty?

Are there those here who can say that God has redeemed the bad and blessed you with good?

Is there anyone here today who, upon taking an account of your life, can now proclaim with gratitude that “God is good!”?

You lost a job and were unsure how your make ends meet, but now you can testify that God provided a way. “God is good.”

You drove home after a visit to the doctor’s office, tears streaming down your face. The diagnosis was bad and the prognosis was worse. Yet today you can say that have been delivered from despair and you know “God is good!”

You stood near the casket of a loved one and wondered how you would make it another day. But you’ve made it another day and many more after that. You’ve been delivered through your depression and now you want the whole world to know that “God is good!”

Some of the items I found in my collection of stuff came during times when life seemed a bit rough. They came from times of struggle, brokenness, difficulty, doubt, and despair. I’ll bet you’ve had those times in your life. During the “Thank Offering” the people came to praise God with gifts of unleavened bread, which served as a reminder of God’s presence and deliverance.

That’s why the church gathers for “reign of Christ” Sunday. This is an occasion to go through treasure boxes of our lives, discovering that God has always been with us. God is with us, unchanging, ever-loving, and full of grace, goodness, and never ending kindness. God has been with us. God is good.

That our song! That’s what prompts our spirit of applause.
If you don’t think it’s too presumptuous for me as a guest preacher, I’d like to give you an assignment. It is not that difficult. In fact, I think you will enjoy it.

Sometime in the days ahead, I want to invite you to go through the treasure boxes of your life. They might be real boxes. They might be boxes of memories that you hold in your heart. Go through those boxes – and as you do, look past the pain and pleasure; look past the hopes and the fears; look past the plenty or the poverty. Life is filled with these ups-and-downs. Look past all those things.
Beyond and behind it all, find God. God is there! Find God and when you do, ask yourself…

“What is it about God that makes me want to clap my hands in child-like delight?”

“What is it about God that helps me to recapture the spirit of applause?”

“What is it about God that causes my heart to overflow with thanksgiving?”

When you have answered that question, clap your hands, sing, and shout. Maybe even dance. Can if suggest that in a Baptist church? Or maybe you’ll just want to grab your Bible and read aloud the words the Psalmist gave us.

“Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving. Enter God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God and bless God’s name. For God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever; God’s faithfulness extends to all generations.”


Birthing Moments of Hope; November 19, 2017 at Ginter Park Baptist Church

This is the sermon I preached November 19, 2017, at the Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  It is titled: Birthing Moments of Hope

Isaiah 9:1-7 – 1Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.

In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan-

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

3You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

5Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

“Birthing Moments of Hope”

In a Peanuts comic Lucy is seated under her sign that reads, “Psychiatrist – Advice: 5 cents.”

Charlie Brown comes to Lucy, nickel in hand, and says, “Lucy, I need help.”

Lucy responds, “What can I do for you, Charlie Brown?”

“I’m confused. I can’t seem to find a direction, a purpose for my life,” replies Charlie.

Lucy answers, “Oh, don’t worry, Charlie. It’s like being on a big ocean liner making its way through the sea. Some folks put their deck chairs to face the bow of the ship, and others place their chairs to face the side of the ship or the back of the ship. Which way do you face, Charlie?”

Charlie Brown looks despondent, and finally says, “I can’t even unfold the deck chair.”

Last week I sat with you in worship. I sat right over in that back corner with my family. I listened attentively as Pastor Mandy told stories and shared statistics.

She told stories about injustice against people of color.

She shared statistics about acts of violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ community.

She told the story that was still fresh on our minds about a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX.

She added the statistic that since 1968 nearly 1.6 million people were killed in gun related deaths (more than in all of the wars of the United States combined).

As I listened to those stories and statistics, I thought ahead the passage I would be preaching about this morning. I thought about the words of Isaiah about people walking in great darkness. And I also remembered Charlie Brown’s despondency at trying to find a purpose for his life on this great cruise ship called life, but not even able to “unfold (his) deck chair.”

But it’s not just mega-stories from the national or international scene. It’s also the micro stories from our own day to day existence.

You might have seen me on television or in the Richmond Times Dispatch back in August. Up until August 20th, I was the pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church here in Richmond. On August 20th our church worshipped for the last time. Then we disbanded as a congregation, and gave our property to a new, younger congregation.

That was the last day of a long journey. For the several years prior we had been walking in darkness and despondency. In the final few years prior to our final gathering, our congregation travelled from one graveside to another. We buried nearly 75% of our active membership. We died well. We died with an eye toward mission. We died in a fashion that served to advance God’s reign in our community. But we did die. And since that Sunday, I have been trying to figure out how to open my deck chair.

Shakespeare wrote: “Bubble, Bubble, toil and trouble.”

I’ve experience some of that – the toil of trouble and the trouble of toil. How about you? Is there some sore spot in your life that is seeking to rob you of your ability to stay focused and move forward? Have you experienced the despondency of not being able to open your deck chair? Have you ever felt like you fumbling around in great darkness, trying to find the light?

It seems to pile up, sometimes, doesn’t it? “The bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” just seems to pile up. And over time it can lead to what Dr. Carl Jung called “a neurosis of emptiness.” Jung wrote,

“When goal goes, meaning goes; when meaning goes, purpose goes; when purpose goes, life goes dead on our hands.”

We gather as a people devoted to casting seeds of justice and peace. We pray that our acts of kindness, goodness, and mercy will not return to us void (empty). And we gather each looking for a message that will give birth in our lives to a feeling of hope when we just can’t seem to get that stupid deck chair to open right way. We need to be counted among those of whom the Prophet spoke when he wrote:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

You have tasted that hunger  for hope. That’s why you keep coming back to worship. You want to be reminded that no matter how tough the circumstances, we are never left alone in the dark. We are never without hope. God is with us. God will never desert us.

Our text promises us the Divine’s presence. But to understand the promise, we need to step back a few chapters to the beginning of Isaiah 7 which sets for us the context. In Isaiah 7 (and 2 Chronicles 28) we learn about Ahaz, who was the king of Judah. We learn that unlike his predecessors, Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” He began to adopt some of the religious rituals of his pagan neighbors, among these human sacrifice. God was not happy.
On the political and international front, things were not working out for Ahaz. After coming to power, he chose to continue Judah’s policy of appeasing Assyria, rather than entering into a coalition with Israel and Syria against Assyria. This so angered the kings of Israel and Syria that they gathered invading armies to overthrow Ahaz and institute a regime change in Judah.

Ahaz heard of their plotting. Fearful, Ahaz contemplated establishing an alliance with the Assyrians to defend his reign.

One day, while Ahaz inspecting the defenses around the water supply of Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah came to Ahaz. He brought a message from God, aimed at calling the king back to faith. Isaiah told the king that the plot against him would fail. God would protect him. He should not form an alliance with the Assyrians.
Despite Isaiah’s best efforts, Ahaz ignored the prophet’s message. He began negotiating a treaty with the Assyrian’s to aid in his conflict with Syria and Israel. But Isaiah refused to give up. He went back to Ahaz and demanded that the king request a sign from God to confirm that his prophecy was true. Ahaz refused to request such a sign (v 12).
Isaiah offered such a sign anyways. In Isaiah 7:14 we read:

“A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (v 14, RSV).

The prophet says further that this child would not even be old enough to comprehend the difference between right and wrong before the plans plot against Judah would fail. And the mother of that child would be so grateful to God for God’s Divine protection that she would name her child Immanuel which means “God is with us.”

Isaiah’s message was that no matter how bad things appeared, hope is never lost as long as God remains actively involved in the world. And God is always actively involved in our world.

Right now, that’s a message I need to cling to. How about you? Do things sometimes seem hopeless to you? Does it ever seem to you that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train? Do you ever feel like Charlie Brown, trying to open the deck chair?

Here’s the thing: God has not given up on you. God has not given up on me. We have never been deserted by God. God’s Divine presence is always with us. Even when we are rebellious and disobedient, like King Ahaz, God does not turn the Divine presence away from us. Even when the whole world seems lined up against justice, peace, and righteousness, God never deserts us.

God is always at work, birthing new hope in our lives. It’s the week before Thanksgiving. Maybe this would be a good time to take stock of our lives. Maybe it is a good time for us to count our many blessings to see what God has done. Maybe this would be a good time to examine the new movements of God, to name them Immanuel (God with us), and celebrate the hope they bring.

That’s what Mary did. In the New Testament we hear a story about a birth of a child in Bethlehem of Judea. The text’s say that humanity would call this child Immanuel, which means “God with us!”

This one we call Immanuel is the promise of God’s presence This child challenged the dark despair of our world with a hopeful message that “the reign of God was at hand.”

The darkness tried to silence his message. It tried to silence his proclamation of hope. It tried to snuff out his very existence by nailing him to a cross, but the New Testament tells us that even the darkness of death could not hold him down. Immanuel defeated for us the darkness and despondency of death.

That is our greatest hope. That is our reason for gratitude. This is why we never give up. That is why we should continue to stand for peace, justice, and righteousness. This is why we should continue to declare the bountiful blessings of grace.

Here is the good news:
Even when we are rebellious
Even when we are afraid
Even when it feels like the darkness surrounds us
Even when we can’t open our deck chair

God is still with us. God is still with us. There are always signs of new hope being born in our midst. When we see those signs, let’s name them Immanuel – and let’s be grateful that they are a reflection of the one born in Bethlehem, whom we call Immanuel.

The Characters of Christmas: Advent Resource

Advent begins December 3, 2017.

“Advent” derived from Latin word adventus, which is a translation of the Greek word Parousia, which means “coming.”

The idea of Advent celebrations is that the church is preparing to celebrate the “coming” of Jesus the Christ, as he was born as the incarnate Son of God.  Advent also looks forward to the “Second Coming of Jesus.”

The idea behind Advent is that Jesus is always coming to us in come fashion to reveal God’s saving grace.  So, the stance of the Church during Advent is Expectant Waiting It s time of spiritual preparation for the appearing of Christ

Reading Between The Lines has prepared a wonderful curriculum for your Advent spiritual preparations, titled:  The Characters of Christmas.  Your can learn more when you watch this brief video.

Important If You Are Near Charlotte, NC

There is a significant event taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This Charlotte Event, will take place October 22, 2017, from 4:oo-7:30PM.

Information is available in the brief, three minute video.  Watch it now.

NEW Youtube: Reading Between The Lines

Recently I began working part-time as the “subscription sales representative” for Reading Between The Lines / TeenText, publication for The Educational Center in Charlotte, NC.

Reading Between The Lines / TeenText is a lectionary based resource perfect for individual study and group discussion.  Additionally, other thematic resources are produce on occasion, most recently Reading Between The Lines of the European Reformation.  Please visit the STORE tab at The Educational Center to get more details.

I have been busy building a wider social media footprint for the organization.  Most recently, I launched its YouTube channel.  I’d like to invite you to subscribe.  Here the welcome video to Reading Between The Lines / TeenText: